Taking the long road

In 2008, I was hopeless.  College? How was I supposed to know what to study?  My nature-photographer father ‘s voice rung in the background, telling me to follow my passion.

The thing is, art was my passion. Art schools were out of my family’s budget, and coming from a family where both of my parents were artists, I was able to witness the ups and downs of the art world. I knew committing my college degree to art would not be the wisest choice. My mother urged me to take up writing. In her opinion, I wrote “terrifically,” and I had a “god-given talent,” but, writing was not my passion, and frankly, I never believed her. I loved traveling, learning about new cultures and meeting new people, but I heard that the chance of nabbing a job in the field of anthropology was slim to none.

I didn’t want to spend days in a studio making art or writing, because that would deprive me of nature’s elements. And studying cultures would lead me to a lab or minimum-wage fieldwork. But, I did know that I loved the natural world. From childhood, the outdoors felt more like home than my actual house. My memories are filled of games played in fern-laden oak forests, adventures in reed-walled marshes and fresh water ponds filled with minnows, and crabbing along the dunes of the Atlantic coast. As a child, I established a deep soul-enriching connection and understanding of the natural world.

At home in nature.

At home in nature.

I didn’t know what to I wanted to study. I wanted to focus on an area that would teach me how to improve the existing world, but no major seemed to fit me. I didn’t know what I was looking for, and I couldn’t find anything that sparked my interest.  So, in the fall of 2008, I ignored my inability to muster more than a B- in science or math, and took up an Environmental Studies major at Stony Brook University Southampton.

Well, by the spring of 2009, I knew I was not ready to embark on an environmental major. Not only was I barely passing my classes that were mainly science- and math- based, but most of the information I was learning was disheartening. I saw no light at the end of the tunnel. I could not overcome the anxiety I experienced when I learned about the statistics of our future planet. It all sounded so bad. I left Stony Brook University Southampton and went to Suffolk County Community College where I began my Liberal Arts degree.

Let me take a step back to the time before I attempted an Environmental Studies major. My first experience of understanding the spiritual and philosophical aspect of the natural world dawned on me when I was sixteen. My high school gave students an opportunity to travel to India for ten days. This trip shocked my understanding of life.

Before this trip, I was like most other teenaged girls. I read fashion magazines, wore horrific make-up, bought cheap clothes and jewelry in order to fit into the newest trends. I was falling into the superficiality that American consumerism offers. I became interested in India after a class on world religions I had taken that year, and Hinduism captured my interest the most.

In Hinduism, there is a great respect for other living things. Cows are worshiped, and there are an infinite amount of gods, goddesses and deities who represent all parts of the physical and spiritual world. Well, India woke me up from my superficial stupor.  My first encounter with India was the smell of cremating bodies that filled the vents of the landing jet. I cried when we finally got on our tour bus. Naked, malnutrition-bellied children pounded on the side of our bus with their handicapped mothers, signaling for food with their empty palms and stick-like fingers. They ran along the bus, through the heavy crowds, as we drove away.


The streets of India.

The streets of India.

But, among the dirt, there was beauty and hope in the people. Women adorned themselves in vibrant colored saris and jewel encrusted gold chains and nose-rings.  The culture was so strong here. Yet, I was enraged by the injustice. Half of my clothes were made in this country. My garbage was taken here, left to be searched through by those pot-bellied children. But, why were they succumbed to this life of starvation and sickness when there were fields of potatoes, okra, peas, curry, and sunflowers not far from the city? Mainly, for money. This trip was a turning point. I witnessed the ugly reality consumerism and globalization has created for other people in this world, and they do not deserve it.

One stop in Isabella's journey through Brazil.

One stop in Isabella’s journey through Brazil.

During the three years after this trip, I continued to travel. I came across once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to travel to some of the most amazing places on Earth. I found myself swimming with seals in the Galapagos, starring at ancient glaciers in Patagonia, Argentina, and even nearly encountering a jaguar in the Amazon Forest in Brazil. My highest point of awe was in Brazil. I was one of eleven students from around the world who were accepted into a backpacking/study abroad program there. We traveled through multiple provinces in the Northern area of the country to study the ecology, geography, culture, and forms of sustainability present there.

Mid-way through our 45-day trek, we arrived to Chapada Diamantina National Park. The park is located in the Chapada dos Veadeiros, an ancient plateau with an estimated age of 1.8 billions years, and is the highest plain in Central Brazil. We hiked through rain and mist for three days. On the fourth, the skies cleared and we came to one of the highest plains in the park. Below, we saw a beautiful valley that looked like it never ended. The valley’s rock walls were lined with gushing waterfalls, casting rainbows in their mist. It was like being at the top of the world. The air was so clean. The sight around me was breathtaking. I remember thinking, This is how the world should be.

Now back to my college story: With my time at Suffolk County Community College drawing to a close, I knew I wanted to find a way to objectify and communicate how beautiful the world is, and what it has to offer us outside of food, water, and gas.  I graduated from Suffolk County Community College with an Associates in Arts degree in 2010. Back to the drawing board it was.

I decided to look back at Stony Brook University. After a short phone call, I discovered that I was still a Stony Brook student. My mind was somewhat set at ease. I immediately began searching through the majors. Anthropology: no. Art: no.  Coastal Environmental Studies: I wish. English: no.

Then, I found a major I had never heard of before: Environmental Humanities. The major consisted of writing, literature, philosophy, social science and environmental art & aesthetics. Everything I loved was encompassed in this major, and all of it was centered around the environment. I felt like this major was made for me. To this day, I do not regret taking the long road to discovering my passion. Now, almost seven years after I began my endeavor into getting a higher education, I am studying how to communicate environmental issues through design and art. I couldn’t have imagined a better way for me to invest my years of education.

Isabella hiking in Argentina (far right).

Isabella (far right) on a hike in Argentina.

By Isabella Bartoloni
Sustainability Studies Program ’15
Environmental Humanities Major

A Fire in the Distance: How I subconsciously found my way to Sustainability Studies.

Several years ago, I found myself sitting in the back of a Dodge conversion van on hour four of the eight-hour drive from San Antonio to El Paso. It was about 2:30 in the morning and everything outside the window was pitch black. You see, being from New York, I’m not used to these vast expanses of highway with completely nothing: no lights, no buildings, not even many other cars passing by in the opposite lane…just darkness. Suddenly, among the bright stars of the west Texas night, something caught my eye…a fire in the distance.

It looked so lonely just burning out there on the plateau. What was it? What was burning? It wasn’t a vast fire, but a small concise flame, like a torch. Then there was not just one fire, but dozens, scores. I remember being almost mesmerized by the long rows of flames jumping and dancing around in the night, like something out of a beautiful nightmare.


Then it occurred to me: we were driving through Texas oil fields. Suddenly these fires took on a new meaning of malevolence. These flames, which were the flares on the tops of oil wells, went on for miles and miles. I’ll never forget that feeling of suddenly realizing how mankind was basically stabbing the earth to death and draining its blood. That was the first time for me. The first time I really understood that something was really wrong. The strange part about it was how stunning those flames looked in the night…

This was my first time ever being in “The West.” I entered Texas driving along the Gulf Coast region from Louisiana with three of my buddies, where we had seen areas that were in complete disrepair from Hurricane Katrina. I began putting the pieces together in my mind. This was before I had ever really studied environmental issues and phenomena, but I knew there was some sort of relationship. It made perfect sense to me at the time that the Earth was sort of fighting back because we were stabbing it with all those oil wells and making it bleed.


Maybe I should take a step back about now and explain why I was in the middle of Texas in the first place. You see, I dropped out of college. Yes, I dropped out of college to pursue my dream of being a guitar player in a band and touring all over the country. So that’s exactly what I did. I was always sort of rebellious and did things my own way. I dropped out of Suffolk Community College because I had no idea what I was doing there or what I wanted out of an education. It felt like I was just spinning my wheels with no real direction. All I knew was that I wanted to hit the road. Sure, I told myself that one-day I would go back to school, but I had no idea when, or what for. All I was focused on was touring with my band. Little did I know was how playing guitar in a punk-rock band would become one of the most profound experiences of my life that would ultimately bring me to Stony Brook University as a Coastal Environmental Studies major.


So I pretty much lived in a van for a while and saw the entire lower forty-eight states. I was completely blown away by the vast expanses of the west. From the enchanting deserts and tall cacti of the southwest, to the snow-capped Cascade Mountains of Washington State. I had no idea how much absolute beauty and wonder there was out there. The thought of destroying these magnificent landscapes to drill for oil, or build pipelines, or build parking lots, absolutely appalled me. But what could I do to prevent further exploitation of these great landscapes? We were just a bunch of dirty, sweaty, twenty-somethings who basically left all we had back home to play music and see the country. Little did I know that everything I saw on that tour would build the foundation of my Environmentalism.


The following spring when back home in Long Island, I was out surfing at a semi-remote South Shore beach with some friends when I saw some strange splashing a few meters away from me. Of course the first thing that pops into your mind when you’re sitting on a surfboard in the ocean is “shark,” but luckily that was not the case. Staring at me from this relatively short distance was an adult Harbor Seal! He was actually really cute, sort of like a dog/cat face with long whiskers and big dark eyes. His head was about the same size as ours with gray and white speckles. Then a few seconds later, a second seal appeared! They were barking at each other playfully and just as curious about me as I was about them. They didn’t seem very afraid either. I’m sure they could tell that they were clearly better swimmers than me and had no reason to be afraid. But still, I had never seen seals in person before in all my years surfing on these beaches.


This was another pinnacle event in my development as an environmentalist. I began to question what had changed on these local beaches for there to be seals now and not before? I did a little research on my own and found that the ocean water quality had improved over the past decade via different legislation pertaining to what was allowed to run-off into our local waters. As the water quality improved, the small fish came back, which were followed by bigger fish, which in turn were followed by the seals. It was all making perfect sense to me at this point. Between my experiences on the road and now my up close and personal encounter with marine mammals, I had decided what exactly I wanted to return to school for: Environmental Science.

That night I went online and looked at the different programs offered at all the different local colleges and universities related to the environment. There was only one that really grabbed by attention: “Coastal Environmental Studies” at Stony Brook University. I emailed Dr. Michael Sperazza, the program’s director, to set up a meeting. We discussed the major and what I wanted out of my education and here I am today. My ultimate goal is to continue pursuing my passion for traveling by working in the fields of coastal zone management and sustainable infrastructure development throughout North America, South America and the Caribbean (I decided to minor in Spanish to help me with the latter).

It’s important that we all spend our time pursuing something that we are passionate about and makes us happy. For me, I am very content with the path that I have chosen. Although unconventional, it makes me who I am. It’s our experiences that help shape who we are, and in turn, help direct us towards a course of study. Then we can take our education and experiences together and unleash them upon the world to make a difference for real positive change. That, I would say, is the true essence of the Sustainability Studies program here at Stony Brook University.

Justin at home...at the beach.

Justin at home…at the beach.

By Justin Fehntrich
Sustainability Studies Program ’16
Coastal Environmental Studies Major
Spanish Language & Literature Minor

Graduate research opportunity!

Northeastern University researchers in the field.

Northeastern University researchers in the field.

Attention Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program seniors and alumni: 

The Ries and Grabowski Labs in the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center (MSC) is currently seeking a graduate student interested in conducting federally-funded research on the impact of ocean acidification and warming on sea scallops, to begin summer/fall 2015.

Research will include ship-board investigations of sea scallop populations on Georges Bank coupled with laboratory experiments investigating impacts of thermal and pH stress.

Sea scallops are highly impacted by ocean acidification.

Sea scallops are highly impacted by ocean acidification.

This opportunity affords access to newly acquired state-of-the-art analytical equipment at the MSC, including a laser ablation inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometer for trace element analysis, a powder x-ray diffractometer for mineralogical characterization, and a scanning electron microscope with energy dispersive spectrometry and electron backscatter diffraction for micro-imaging and elemental/mineralogical mapping of scallop shell ultrastructure.

The selected graduate student will receive interdisciplinary training in carbonate geochemistry and biomineralization, global ocean-climate change, fisheries ecology, and ecosystem management, and will have the opportunity to develop their own PhD project under this wide umbrella while helping investigate the impacts of ocean warming and acidification on sea scallops. The graduate student will be based at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, located on the shores of Massachusetts Bay on the Nahant tombolo (13 miles north of downtown Boston).

The renovated MSC features a state-of-the-art flow through seawater facility, direct access to classic New England rocky shore intertidal study sites, an in-house SCUBA program, and small-craft research vessels.

Highly motivated and creative individuals with strong writing and analytical skills are encouraged to apply. Interested individuals should apply to Northeastern’s Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences’ Ph.D. program via this link.

Applications are due December 15, 2014. Please direct specific inquiries to Profs. Justin Ries and Jon Grabowski.

Good luck!

Sustaining a dream

When I was young, I was always quite un-intrigued by the “life” around me. As I grew older, living in North Bellmore, a town characterized by small shopping strips and cul-de-sacs started to please me less and less. There was not much real nature to be seen. The only green that my family owned was a small front lawn. It wasn’t that I hated it, it was simply that I felt like I was missing something.

To compensate, I often found comfort in going to local preserves, my favorite being the Roosevelt Preserve, located on the border of Merrick and Roosevelt. I found it to be awe-inspiring. Trails taking twists and turns, forged by following natural openings visible amidst a sea of green. I took solace in being led to nothing but a tree or stream, where not a thing was spelled out for me, where opportunities to think or run free were as abundant as the vast natural scenery around me. It was where I could be myself and more importantly where I could find myself. It was blissful solitude in nature.

The Meadow Brook Stream and trees, Roosevelt Preserve.

The Meadow Brook Stream and trees, Roosevelt Preserve.

For years I did not think the experiences I had in the various preserves across Long Island could be replicated anywhere other than in another place of nature. However, my experience with the Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program has proved that thought to be incorrect.

Acting just like a preserve or park, the program inspires thought not through a body of water or an open field, but through well selected readings via authors such as Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Carson and many more. Classes within the program vary not only in their academic nature, but also in what aspects of “nature” they teach you about: how to protect it, why you should protect it, its history and even the scientific breakdown of the various organisms within it.

Think of any place where you can go and be truly happy. Now imagine millions had shared in enjoying the very same thing. Now imagine every documented thought or idea related to that place organized and presented to you. If it was really so meaningful to you, wouldn’t you take the time to learn all you could about it? This is what the program offers. It presents you with a plethora of courses covering all aspects of Sustainability Studies; a rare opportunity in today’s automated world; an opportunity I have long dreamed of having.

Walking through the Roosevelt Preserve I can think of dozens of instances where I just looked up at the trees and thought to myself, “I would really do anything to protect this.” As I walked alone in the woods thinking my deep thoughts, I probably thought that sounded pretty cool. But now that I think about it, it doesn’t. Take a walk, think some thoughts…that’s nice. But what has it done for you? What has it done for the world?

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Roosevelt Preserve in springtime.

Every day I spend as a student in the Sustainability Studies Program, I gain knowledge that allows me to be like a young tree taking in water and expanding its roots to stand firmer against the forces of the world. I’m learning that aside from being a form of life myself, there are things I can do to breathe life into the world. I’m learning about jobs I could do to help form a sustainable world. I’m entering into the realm of internships and volunteering and I’m not doing it alone. The program is constantly sending emails about various opportunities through internships, volunteer experience, scholarships, even knowledge via studying abroad trips.

The Sustainability Studies Program has formally introduced me to a world that for years I merely played with. I spent my adolescent years just wanting to escape from my mundane suburban surroundings and get to the nearest nature preserve. Now every step I take in my life is more meaningful, helping me create real positive change in the world. I now see that what is really behind that stream or tree that those initial abstract trails had led me to. That’s not pretty—but—really cool.

That’s the Sustainability Studies Program, and I’m glad to be a part of it.  

Chad Marvin, in Lake George, New York (Summer 2014).

Chad Marvin, in Lake George, New York (Summer 2014).

By: Chad Marvin